About Presbyterians

What do Presbyterians believe?

This question usually tops the list among folks who want to know more about the Presbyterian Church. Fortunately, the Presbyterian Church is a confessional church. This means that while the Scriptures remain our final authority in matters of faith and practice, we affirm that the church of Jesus Christ has produced powerful, abbreviated statements of faith to guide and instruct the faithful over the past 2,000 years.  Our earliest doctrinal statement, The Apostles' Creed, dates, in part, to the second century.

The PC(USA) Book of Confessions contains nine confessional statements in total. Some of our confessional statements reflect the faith of the entire church of Jesus Christ, while others reflect more the particular understanding of Christianity that is particular to the Reformed family churches, in which tradition the Presbyterian Church stands. 

Our most recent confessional statement, A Brief Statement of Faith, was written in the 1980's.  This Brief Statement of Faith speaks to the basic elements of Christian faith, from a Presbyterian perspective, but what do Presbyterians believe about many additional items not specifically mentioned in the statement? What do Presbyterians believe about abortion, euthanasia, violence in the media, human sexuality, and global economics?

Well, when it comes to most of these issues, the simple truth is that Presbyterians believe many things. We are politically, economically, and theologically diverse. The diversity of the Presbyterian Church is quite remarkable, and it exists not by accident, but by design. There are two reasons for this breadth of conviction, and both are clearly articulated in our denomination's Book of Order.

First, we affirm that Jesus Christ alone is head of the church.

"All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the church, which is his body.

In all things, it is Christ's will that we seek to guide and govern the church. In many cases, the will of Christ is quite clear to us, because we have so much of his teaching faithfully preserved in the pages of the New Testament. In some cases, however, the Bible can't provide the kind of unequivocal guidance we might want. Faithful Christians, in good conscience, will interpret the Scriptures in different ways. When this happens, the church has a profound choice. It can either be divided or it can be diverse. A divided church is one which polarizes over a 'hot' issue with each side claiming the Scriptures as supporting their side. The two factions will eventually divide, and go their respective ways. A diverse church is one which maintains the Lordship of Jesus over His church, and seeks to maintain open dialogue as both sides communicate their convictions and beliefs, subject to the authority of God's Word.

This brings us to the second reason for our tremendous diversity-the right of private judgment-which is also part of our Book of Order.

"God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.

What is unique about the Presbyterian Church?

Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways: they adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.

Reformed Theology

Theology is a way of thinking about God and God's relation to the world. Reformed theology evolved during the 16th century religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation. It emphasizes God's supremacy over everything and humanity's chief purpose as being to glorify and enjoy God forever.

In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. Related to this central affirmation of God's sovereignty are other great themes of the Reformed tradition:

--The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;

--Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the scriptures;

--A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God's creation;

--The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking Justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.

Church Government

A major contributor to Reformed theology was John Calvin, who converted from Roman Catholicism after training for the priesthood and in the law. In exile in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin developed the Presbyterian pattern of church government, which vests governing authority primarily in elected laypersons known as elders. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder.

Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships. They shall serve faithfully as members of the session. When elected commissioners to higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office.

The body of elders elected to govern a particular congregation is called a session. They are elected by the congregation and in one sense are representatives of the other members of the congregation. On the other hand, their primary charge is to seek to discover and represent the will of Christ as they govern. Presbyterian elders are both elected and ordained. Through ordination they are officially set apart for service. They retain their ordination beyond their term in office. Ministers who serve the congregation are also part of the session. The session is the smallest, most local governing body. The other governing bodies are presbyteries, which are composed of several churches; synods, which are composed of several presbyteries; and the General Assembly, which represents the entire denomination. Elders and ministers who serve on these governing bodies are also called presbyters.